Q&A: Are ideas for Garda reform new or recycled?

Some proposals have been recommended before and simply not implemented

Q: A new report from the Commission on the future of policing in Ireland recommends major Garda reform. How significant is it?

A: It is probably the most significant plan for modernising and reforming the Garda in its near 100-year history. It has not shied away from delving into all areas of policing and recommending change in great depth covering the ethos of the Garda, through to resourcing and oversight of the force. For example, it suggests grounding all police work in the protection of human rights, saying it should be what the Garda is about first and foremost. It suggests a whole range of ideas for freeing up more gardaí for the frontline and outlines the new equipment and technology gardaí need. It even suggests a shake-up of the Garda oversight agencies.

Q: Why has nobody thought of any of this before?

A: Well, that’s the trouble; a lot of this is not new. It’s been recommended before and simply not implemented. In fact, the new report contains a range of hardy annuals: opening recruitment to police officers from abroad; freeing gardaí from attending time-consuming court cases; fast-tracking recruits with degrees; allowing gardaí the possibility of exchange programmes with other police forces; pushing for improved crime data and things like body-worn cameras, mobile phones and tablets for all gardaí, better uniforms and more effective rosters. It also says it should be easier to dismiss unsuitable gardaí. All of these issues have been recommended before but were never implemented.


Q: But surely the bigger recommendations are new?

A: Some are, but others are not. The idea to create what would effectively be a board of management at the top of the Garda has been around for 10 years, for example. But the idea for the Garda to develop partnerships with third-level institutions is new and many people believe the more training and education delivered to Garda members on college campuses, the less insular the force would be.

Q: So are those the only new ideas?

A: No, there are others. One really interesting proposal is for Garda members to spend periods serving in other police forces or even in business organisations. They could learn skills and pick up new techniques and then bring their experience back into the Garda. Exchange programmes have been mooted before, but only briefly and not in this level of detail.

Q: But what about the direction of the Garda; anything new at all?

A: Yes. There is quite a simple idea to set out more clearly in legislation the Garda’s power of arrest, detention and searching; effectively defining those basic police powers in human rights-proof legislation that is clear to all and fit for modern society. The commission also says Irish society must accept that policing and security is not just a job for the Garda; something gardaí have been saying for years. And so it has put forward the idea of community stakeholders working with the Garda to influence, and set priorities for, policing plans in geographic areas in a way not seen to date. A new agency within government and answerable to the Taoiseach is also suggested to co-ordinate State security intelligence; a move that may have the effect of a badly-needed crash course for Government in State security.

Q: Are there practical steps in here to make sure hard cases are not just the Garda’s responsibility?

A: The report also suggests the establishment of crisis intervention teams. These would include social workers, health workers and mental health staff who would intervene as crisis cases emerged out of hours. And that would be really helpful to the Garda because it is the organisation that is left to cope when homeless people and the mentally ill, and others in crisis, present in the small hours of the morning with complex needs and nowhere else to go but the local Garda station.

Q: You also mentioned Garda oversight. Are those ideas new?

A: It wants to scrap the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) which investigates complaints against gardaí. It wants a new complaints body with a name reflecting its independence rather having the word "Garda" in the title. And it wants the new complaints body to have enough resources so it does not need to send some complaints on to the Garda for investigation. It also wants to amalgamate the Garda Inspectorate, which advises on Garda change, and the Policing Authority, to which the Garda commissioner is answerable.

Q: New or old, that all sounds good. When is this happening?

A: The head of the commission Kathleen O’Toole and the Government believe it can be done by 2022. But on the basis of past experience, most people will believe the implementation when they see it.